Rumpus Original Fiction: Run, Sister
The brother and sister stand in the garage, looking at a corkboard wall with an array of tools dangling off pegs. The tools are the father’s, the father who no longer lives in the house, the father who hasn’t seen the kids in several years. The sister remembers once hearing the mother say on the phone—in reference to the tools—He just put them there for show. He couldn’t fix a damn thing if his life were at stake.
“Pick one,” the brother demands, and the sister searches the wall. She hates this game. It’s one of her least favorites, but she knows there’s no getting out of it. She looks at the collection—saws, drills, wrenches, pliers. Her eyes land on a hammer. A hammer seems like it would hurt less than a saw, less than pliers. She points to it.
The brother walks closer to the wall. “You better start running,” he says, as he takes the hammer from its peg. “Your lucky hammer!” he yells.
The girl wants her mother, but it is Thursday, and on Thursdays, the mother sleeps at her boyfriend’s house. The mother does hire someone to watch the children—a well-meaning, sweet older woman who shares a twin bed at night with the sister, their two scared bodies smushed up against each other, clinging to one another until morning. Both of them terrified, both of them weaker than the brother. The woman is scared of loss, and lightning, and swimming, and taking showers during thunderstorms. The girl is scared of her brother, and the man she’s never seen who lives in her house, and of being abducted and murdered like those news stories she sometimes sees behind her mother’s shoulder while she is cooking dinner. The sister loves this older woman so much, more than anything or anyone, but deep down she knows that this woman isn’t physically strong enough to protect her, knows the older woman would try but also knows that the older woman would be killed before she could. Still, the older woman is the only one who sides with her, believes in her fear, the only one who seems to need comfort as much as she does.
On the occasion that the ‘game’ will end up in the house, the older woman will yell, Danny, please stop! My blood pressure, my blood pressure! Or I’m gonna call the cops, Danny! Or Let her alone, Danny! Stop being so fresh!
The sister appreciates this valiant effort but knows that the brother will not listen to the woman because he is not scared of her. He will continue to chase the sister.
And it’s not like if the mother were home, the game would have ended either. There have been many times when the sister tried to tell the mother what had happened, but the brother raced to the mother first, spun a story about how the sister was antagonizing him. The sister would be so frustrated that she would scream, and cry, and yell and the mother would say, Enough of this! Both of you!
And that would be that.
The sister runs around to the other side of the house and crouches in a bush. She doesn’t want to die, feels like her life hasn’t even started yet. She prays, like a child does, for simple things. She has an ice skating birthday party next week, and she prays to live long enough to attend. Ice skating always hurts her feet because she never learned how to balance on the skates. Instead, her feet turn inward, and her ankles roll, but she loves it despite this, and she prays to be able to live another few days so she can attend the ice skating party, even though she knows her feet will hurt after.
Sometimes, she bargains with God in these moments—I really want to go to the ice skating party, but if you don’t want me to go, I won’t. Just please let me say goodbye to my dog, goodbye to my Hebrew School teacher, goodbye to the older woman in the house who is sitting and watching her programs, who would try and protect me if she knew what was happening but who couldn’t protect me if she tried.
“Where are you? Where are you?” the brother sings. “Got your lucky hammer here!”
The boy is laughing, and the girl is terrified. She tries not to breathe, not to move, not to blink. He rounds the corner of the house and pretends not to see her hidden behind the skeletal shrub. He plays dumb for a moment, and she exhales. Then he turns to face her.
“Think I didn’t see you there, did ya? You better run!”
The girl bolts. She runs in zigzags, does anything she can to get away from him and the hammer. As she runs, she starts to second-guess her choice. A hammer can break bones. A hammer can bruise skin. An axe has a flimsy, wobbly blade. Her feet ricochet off the pavement. The beautiful new pavement that was just poured the other the week. The sister remembers the urge to lie in it and make a snow angel, or to write out HI! in footsteps, or to carve her initials, at the very least, but she fought that urge. It was taped off with yellow ribbon and two wooden sticks, and even though she could have very easily stepped over the makeshift boundary, she didn’t. She likes to do what she’s told.
The sister runs up the steep slope of the driveway. She’s tired. He’s behind her. She knows he’s letting her lead, that he doesn’t want the game to be over yet. She keeps running and running and running—the prayers on a loop in her mind: please, please, please, please, birthday party, ice skating, at least say goodbye.
There are nights, most nights, the vast majority of nights, when the mother is home, where the sister crawls out of bed and shuffles to the hallway outside the mother’s door. She does her best to avoid every creak in the carpet, never bumps the doorframe with her shoulder. She stands, breathless, terrified, unsure if it’s worth waking her mother but too scared to imagine an alternate option. She wishes the older woman were here in these moments, that her mother slept out more often, that someone tried to protect her instead of forcing her to sleep alone. She knows if she goes back in her room, her brother will sneak in, and she’ll be murdered or tortured by him or a home invader or the man who has been hiding in her house that she’s never seen.
Even though she checks under her bed, in both of her closets, opens every drawer though she knows a body could never fit in one, she’s convinced herself that there’s still a man hiding somewhere and that the day she finds him will be the day she gets no more birthday parties, or trips to the Burger King drive-thru, or Hebrew School music classes, or hugs from her mother, or hugs from the older woman.
The girl hates disappointing the mother, hates feeling like a coward, like a baby, like she’s not normal, like it’s not normal that she cries in the middle of the night at sleepovers and has her friend’s parents call the mother to pick her up and then is equally scared to sleep in her own home, like it’s not normal that she watches the clock at Hebrew school and prays for it to break, to stop, to get extended one more hour, one more minute, so that she doesn’t have to go home and stand on the carpet between her and her mother’s room, scared and stuck and holding her breath and paralyzed by the fear of disappointing the mother but equally paralyzed by the fear of going back into her bedroom and sleeping alone.
The brother is gaining on the sister. They are both up the hill now, and she is making a left, running on the sidewalk. “Lucky hammer,” he chides. “Don’t let it hit you. Don’t let it smash you.”
If she were older, she might understand that if the brother really wanted to do something, he could have done it ten times by now. She might connect the dots and realize that they’ve played this game a dozen times and that he’s never actually used the weapon on her. But she’s not older. She’s 9, and the only thing she can think about is running as fast as she can so that she can go to Hebrew school on Monday and sing the silly song about trains and Matzoh Ball soup, so that she can go to the birthday party and watch with envy as the girl opens her gifts and blows out the candles, so that she can hug her mother, and her dog, and the older woman, and say goodbye to her Hebrew School teacher, and the boy at school who once cut a lock of her hair, and the bus driver who gives out little foil-wrapped chocolate hearts on Valentine’s Day. All of these things overwhelm her with such longing, such a deep desire to live, that she runs and runs and runs and can’t conceive a reality in which her life is not in jeopardy.
Most nights, after the girl has checked the closets, and the bathtub, and the drawers, and under her bed, but before she stands in the hallway, holding her breath outside the mother’s room, she lies awake, looking at the popcorn ceiling of her bedroom, eyes open and mind racing, and she prays. These aren’t formal prayers she’s learned in temple. These are the prayers of a child, prayers specific to her. When it began, years ago, it was a simple prayer: I pray to God to protect me and my family and those people are my mom, my dad, my brother, my dog, and the older woman. Overtime, the girl added to the prayer. It started with her cousins and grandparents and aunts and uncles. It continued with her Hebrew School teachers—each one she’s had since kindergarten—and her grade school teachers, and her bus drivers. It morphed into every person she could think of, every kid in her grade, every member of the congregation, every friend she used to have and their parents and their siblings, and the doctor and the dentist, and her old dance teacher and her old soccer coach. It became obsessive, more and more and more names, and if she didn’t say them aloud at night, everyone she forgot would be dead the next day, and it would be her fault, all her fault. After the list of names came the hand gestures, and the snapping ritual, and the rubbing of her fingers together, for she convinced herself that if she didn’t do these trivial things, that this too would lead to the demise of a loved one or of anyone whose name she said or didn’t say. This would take hours, and the girl would be sick with the false sense of control she was burdened with but didn’t want.
The sister continues to run on the uneven ground of the sidewalk, one foot in front of the other, noticing the tiny pebbles embedded into to the chain of squares. She has a pain in her side, a shooting pain, and she knows it’s a cramp, which a British girl at her school calls stitch. Stitch, stitch, stitch, stitch, stitch. She spells out the word in her head to the rhythm of Aretha Franklin’s, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” S-T-I-T-C-H. S-T-I-T-C-H. She can’t go on like this much longer. She keeps sing-spelling the word, trying to distract herself, trying to keep running.
The brother is an arm’s length away. She thinks about the older woman, how she’s just inside, how every year on her own birthday her only wish is for this woman to live forever. They cling to each other at night. They are both scared. She knows the older woman can’t protect her, really. Knows if she runs in the house to tell her, the woman’s blood pressure will go up, a risk she’s not willing to take.
She’s thinking of the woman’s scent—Dove soap and hair spray—thinking of how nice it would be to hug her, or to lie in bed clinging to her.
And that’s when she trips.
There’s an especially uneven slab of sidewalk. The toe of her shoe gets caught. She lands on the concrete and smacks her lip on the hard pseudo-earth. She curls up in a ball, protects her head with her arms, scrunches her eyes. “Don’t. Please please please please please.” In this moment, she’s not thinking about Hebrew School, or the birthday party, or the older woman. She’s not thinking of anything. She’s acting like an animal, utilizing instinct to protect herself.
She braces for the impact of the hammer. She feels a swift, blearing pain collide with her shin, but the texture is rubbery, not cold like metal.
It was a kick. He only kicked her.
“You’re such a baby. Get up,” the brother says. “I won’t break your bones this time. Gotta leave room for another game.” He laughs.
The sister laughs too. Her laugh is maniacal. Her eyes are wide. Her shin throbs and her mouth tastes metallic. The brother leaves her there, sitting on the sidewalk laughing, and retreats to the house, probably to play a video game or to get a snack.
The sister looks around. Her hands press on the gravelly surface, and she pushes herself to stand. Her legs feel light and wobbly. Blood pumps in her ears. Her eyes adjust to the bright, bright sun. She stares down at the cracked frame of the basketball hoop at the sloping end of her driveway in a daze. She’s taking it all in—the gentle breeze that spawns goosebumps on her skin, the smell of dewy grass, the squeal of birds flying overhead. She stands still, detached, in a state of amazement and awe for all that exists and doesn’t exist.
After some time, she runs toward the house. She gets to go to the birthday party, gets to see her mother again, gets to go inside and hug the older woman, and smell the hair spray and Dove soap, and feel the soft comforting jiggle of the woman’s stomach rolls as they hold each other throughout the night.
Rumpus original art by Ian MacAllen